Monday, March 29, 2010

42: Journey into Mystery #90

Journey into Mystery #90
January 3, 1963

  • Continuing Jack Kirby's strange, sudden disappearance, the art in this month's Thor tale is handled by Al Hartley. Hartley wasn't very prominent in the Marvel age of superheroes; he mostly excelled at the romance comics of the 1950s (including the popular teen comic Patsy Walker), and later focussed on books for Archie Comics, as well as Christian comics. Between these two phases, however, he tried his hand at superheroes. Unfortunately, although his art does have an odd, quirky appeal, it's pretty obvious that his strengths weren't suited to the genre. As a result, this issue would be the only superhero comic he was to pencil.

  • It's Thor versus the Carbon Copy Men! (Plural, as opposed to the cover.) And nothing dates this issue more than the fact that it's ... Thor versus the Carbon Copy Men! When Dr. Don Blake finds that the denizens of his city have gone nutty - pasting signs on a building instead of the billboard, painting polka dots on the nearby bridge - he calls on Thor's father Odin for help, who paraphrases Occam's razor: when something puzzles him, the simplest and most obvious explanation is likely the answer. Ludicrously, Thor then concludes that "if people are not acting like themselves, they must not be themselves! They must be impostors!!" One can imagine Odin's stunned reaction: "Wait - really? That's what you took away from this?" And yet, this actually turns out to be the case, as alien shapeshifters from Xarta (did Larry Lieber, we wonder, originally script it as the planet Xerox?) have come to Earth and "are planting impersonators in key jobs throughout the city! Their task is to make foolish laws ... to cause confusion and panic! [...] And after we have confused and frightened your entire civilization, then we shall attack and conquer you!" That's right - their invasion plan is to have their secret agents make foolish laws. Try and pretend you're not even a little in awe.

  • The first Skrull story from Fantastic Four #2 has already been imitated once, and we can't help feeling its spectre again. Just like the Skrulls, the Xartans are alien invaders who use their shapeshifting powers to sow seeds of panic and discord, albeit on a more generalized scale. And just like how the Skrulls were disposed of by being changed into cows, and then left, so the Xartans are defeated when Thor has them change into trees, and then leaves. (Sorry; couldn't resist.) Unlike the Skrulls, the Xartan fleet would learn their lesson and never be seen again. Who knows? Maybe the Carbon Copy Men eventually discovered digital scanning.

    Well, just wait twenty-odd years and you'll be a frog....

Sunday, March 28, 2010

41: Amazing Spider-Man #1

Amazing Spider-Man #1
December 10, 1962

  • Six months after the character's first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, he graduates to the first issue of his own mag. And boy, is it a doozy! While the origin story had instantly captured the feel and premise of the character, this issue is astonishing for just how many lasting additions to the mythos it introduces all at once, such as: newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson and his fear-mongering rants against Spider-Man in the Daily Bugle; the money problems constantly facing Peter and his Aunt May in the wake of his Uncle Ben's death; Peter's desperate need to hide his other life from the dear, fragile aunt who has raised him since he was a boy; and the way that, even when he manages to save the day through tireless effort, he still ends up getting a raw deal. All this and two separate, exciting stories - including his initial brush with The Chameleon, Spider-Man's first costumed foe!

    The Chameleon calls.

  • One might think that Stan would initially keep the connections to other Marvel comics at bay, to prove to the readership that this hero truly had the chops to stand on his own feet. But Stan's a daring guy, and instead draws the threads of the burgeoning Marvel tapestry closer than we've seen to date. The Fantastic Four boldly appear on the cover of his very first issue, and they're prominently showcased in a side story where Spider-Man breaks into their headquarters to appeal for membership in the group. And earlier in the book, Peter is shown wondering about the FF and the Ant-Man - Pym's first mention in any comic outside his own! Combine that with the Hulk's appearance in FF #12 (appearing on the stands the same week as this issue), and you've got all of the Marvel heroes - aside from Thor, and Iron Man (whose first appearance also hit this same week) - finally starting to interact.

    No good deed goes unpunished.

  • In the midst of all this world-building, however, Stan never forgets the elements of pathos and dramatic irony. A rightly famous example from this issue comes when Peter decides that the only way he can help his aunt with their finances is to return to performing, despite how tragically that turned out before. Nothing goes wrong this time, however - until it comes time to collect his payment. The booking agent says he has to pay Peter via check, so there's a record for tax purposes - but Peter can't divulge his secret identity, and naively has him make the check out to "Spider-Man". Of course, when he goes to the bank they refuse to cash the check without any sort of ID, as he could be anyone under that suit!
    By day, acing chemistry.
    By night, fighting the Reds!

  • Hilariously, this issue is not without its own Goofy Silver Age Writing. When J. Jonah Jameson's astronaut son John takes a highly-publicized new rocket up for a test flight, the nation watches with bated breath. But tragedy strikes when a critical guidance component breaks off, sending the rocket veering on an unpredictable course! Who is John Jameson's only hope? No, not the Fantastic Four, with their own rockets and pogo plane - but (somehow, bizarrely) Spider-Man! And so, in short order, Peter picks up a replacement for the guidance widget, immobilizes an air force guard and hijacks a jet plane, has the jet pilot unwisely pull alongside the still-out-of-control rocket ship, climbs outside and stands on top of the jet, and then swings across on a web line so he can finally reinstall the missing component, allowing John to safely land and walk away. And yet, although this snaps any sense of believability far more than the usual gaffes to be found in the many Ant-Man tales, it doesn't detract from our enjoyment, as usually happens there. Perhaps that's because it's so completely bat-crazy from the very beginning of the outlandish sequence, rather than one glaring turn in a sea of plausibility; just like the ludicrous visual of Spider-Man on the jet plane, we find we've little choice but to hang on with all our might and enjoy the ride.

    Fret not, readers! It works.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sidebar: Untangling the Web

  • When reading Spider-Man's debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, I discussed how the circumstances surrounding Spider-Man's origin were a bit more complex than is generally portrayed:
    Just as the Fantastic Four was Stan's last-ditch effort at "doing superheroes right", so too does the story hold that Stan's publisher, Martin Goodman, was so appalled by the concept ("People HATE spiders!") that he stonewalled it until declining sales of their anthology comic, Amazing Fantasy, warranted its cancellation - saying Stan could just throw the 11-pager into the final issue if he wanted. But what no one ever brings up is that bit on the cover about "the NEW Amazing!", and that the final page of the comic ends with "Be sure to see the next issue of Amazing Fantasy for the further amazing exploits of America's most DIFFERENT new teen-age idol -- Spiderman!" Maybe they thought if sales were through the roof, they could keep the mag going (which didn't happen). Or they could spin the one feature off into his own comic and leave the anthology mag on the floor (which did).
  • So then what was the intent going into AF15? Stan always claims that the reason Spider-Man got a shot was because Amazing Fantasy was cancelled anyway, so the publisher didn't care what wound up in it. But the cover and end of tale implied that the comic was continuing - so what truly occurred? Fortunately, I've recently been able to track down a copy of the the editorial page in question, which sheds some additional light on the subject:

    (click for full size)

  • With this evidence, then, we get a somewhat clearer view. Amazing Fantasy was slated to continue, and still as an anthology mag of several different stories; note the dangled possibility of TWO Spidey stories in each issue, which implies that in addition to Spider-Man there was still the intent to have short, standalone backup tales following. As you'll have noticed, this very format - having a monthly superhero feature as the lead story, followed by standalone, non-superhero stories after - is in fact what started occurring to all of Marvel's anthology comics, in fairly short order.

  • In fact, the most inexplicable thing here is the timing. Amazing Fantasy #15 came out in the first week of June, 1962, and the plan to evolve the anthologies was already in place - for that same week saw the debut of Thor in Journey into Mystery and the monthly Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish, with the Human Torch's feature in Strange Tales beginning one month later. So why did it take Stan six months to decide to ditch the anthology route for AF and put out Spider-Man in a title all his own?

  • In lieu of any further evidence, the best we can surmise is that Amazing Fantasy was indeed scheduled to survive past #15, with Spider-Man as the longer, lead story every month, just like the other anthologies. The fact that this did not occur perhaps suggests that the sales figures coming in for the previous issues showed the comic to have been selling SO disastrously that Goodman chose to immediately axe the comic instead - until months after #15, when the figures showed that the final issue had been one of Marvel's best sellers to date. Sure, this is completely at odds with Stan's story of Martin hating the concept so much that he'd only let Stan have one story in a doomed magazine - but then, the vastness of Stan's famously muddy memory is only matched by his well-documented ability for self-mythologizing. This isn't a criticism, mind you; Stan's friendly huckster persona is one that's clearly served both him and Marvel incredibly well. And let's face it: The tale as it's come to be known is simply a better story than "Well, we thought we'd make him a bigger part of the mag, then we cancelled it, then we brought him back on his own." The one may be factually truthful - but the version as he tells it is far more resonant.

Friday, March 26, 2010

40: Tales of Suspense #39

Tales of Suspense #39
December 10, 1962

  • Here comes Marvel's finest armored hero! And, weirdly, it's launched without a regular artist. Oh, all the listings give Don Heck as such, and he did draw many of the early stories (in addition to this first one) ... but then, so did Jack Kirby. And Steve Ditko. With seemingly no rhyme or reason to their schedule at all! Jack would be on for one, then Heck for two, then Jack for two, then Don for three, then Ditko, etc. One would think Stan really believed in the potential of this character; after all, he not only made Iron Man a a new monthly feature, but gave it the lead story in one of his anthology mags - just as he'd done with Thor, Ant-Man and the Human Torch.  And yet, these and every other new hero had been assigned a regular penciller, right from the start, who typically performed the chore every month - so what happened here?

  • Those who know Tony Stark primarily from the movies probably have no idea that his origin was set during the Vietnam War. While using an actual, current war as backdrop would be startling now, Stan probably didn't think it too daring at the time. After all, one of his innovations, quickly made standard, had been to place fantastic characters in realistic, believable settings - and you couldn't get more real than a war that the U.S. was actively involved in. However, such a move wouldn't happen much, if at all, after this. For one thing, the American public's view on warfare would become far more complex in the wake of Vietnam, and Stan would have already realized how divisive involving a hero directly would be to the readership. And from a story perspective, if superpowered characters did get involved, they would likely end the conflict in no time flat. (As it is, Tony's decision to deliberately kill his captors at the end of the tale is surprising for a 1962 comic!)

    Hubris, thy name is Stark.

  • An unusual point of interest is that Tony Stark was a hit with the ladies - and not just in the book! According to Stan Lee, Iron Man received more fan mail from girls than any of their other characters. By a LOT. And while the staff certainly welcomed this, it perplexed them too: What about this character, they wondered, was reaching their female readers more than any of their other comics? They had two leading theories: First, that perhaps they'd done a better job than they'd thought of portraying Tony Stark as the confident, bachelor playboy, and that Tony had in fact been charming the readers as much as his supporting cast. Secondly, they wondered if the critical weakness they'd saddled Stark with during this first story really had tugged effectively on his female readers' heartstrings, so they responded to this very human vulnerability even in the midst of all his power.

  • Speaking of which, this was yet another case where Stan came up with an incredibly powerful concept - perhaps moreso than he knew. When arms manufacturer Tony Stark visits the U.S. military in Vietnam to demonstrate the effectiveness of his new transistors, he accidentally trips a booby trap which sends deadly shrapnel into his heart. While captured by the enemy, he's able to construct an iron suit with which to combat his adversaries and escape - a suit centered on a chestplate which also acts as a sort of pacemaker. In other words, that which makes him super is also that which keeps him alive. Were he separated from his armor, he would die, which means we could really view his trial by fire as the death of Tony Stark and the beginning of the Iron Man - a level of rebirth and reinvention that borders on the near-mythic.

    Iron Man's first baby steps.

Monday, March 15, 2010

39: Fantastic Four #12

Fantastic Four #12
December 10, 1962

  • This is it. This is the big one. Marvel has been putting out superhero comics again for nearly a year and a half, and the handful of features they've created are really taking off. But now, for the very first time, we see the initial step in the shared-world idea that would soon define much of their appeal. Sure, one of the members of the Fantastic Four has his own spin-off comic - but even with that first bit of expansion, there had been nothing to suggest a shared history or setting between any of these separate strips, just as (for instance) you wouldn't expect any interaction between the stories of Dracula and King Arthur. But when The Incredible Hulk's General Ross recruits the FF to help him track down and capture his personal Moby Dick, the canny reader could predict the team-up possibilities to come....

    The Four receive their mission...

  • So it's only fitting that this inaugural moment should also begin another tradition: that of the semi-regular battles between the Hulk and the Thing. As rivalries go, it's a no-brainer to pit the hulking creature of terrifying strength against the FF's resident dark-tempered powerhouse. And eight-year-olds everywhere have long enjoyed their debates of match-ups: "Who'd win in a fight," they ask with eager eyes, "Batman or Superman?" Clearly, in what may have been one of the earliest examples of fanservice, this brawl was made for them.

    Clash of the Titans.

  • What's so strange about the whole affair, then, is how exciting it isn't. One of the rules of fiction is to have the story begin as far along as you possibly can; otherwise you run the risk of a tale with far too much setup and not enough drama. Sadly, that seems to be exactly the case here. After an action sequence in which terribly uninformed soldiers attempt to take down the Thing by mistake, the Four meet General Ross ... and top scientist Bruce Banner. This is a neat twist on the story - having one of the people briefing them be the monster they're charged to capture - but the development goes on for too long, and the FF don't even meet the Hulk until page 17 (out of 22). It's not a bad story, by any means - but important as it is to the development of Marvel as a whole, it's disappointing that it's not a better one.

    You wouldn't expect a commie to travel without his membership card, would you?
    How would the other Reds know who he was?

  • Oddly, one of the things that's a bit inexplicable is the timing of the tale. The Incredible Hulk's last issue (for now) would be #6, out on the stands just a few weeks after. If this story had happened a few months after his comic had been cancelled, we could see this guest-starring role as a way of keeping the creature in the public's mind (as Stan would certainly do). On the other hand, you'd expect this was being done in part to boost Hulk's sales, and that as a result Stan would at least keep the title going long enough to see if his appearance here had the desired affect. Did sales for The Hulk turn out to be even worse than they'd thought, calling for a drastic move like cutting the title off at the last minute?

    Truer words were never spoke, as such meetings would soon become
    de rigueur at the House of Ideas.

Friday, March 12, 2010

38: Strange Tales #106

Strange Tales #106
December 10, 1962

  • From the beginning of the Torch's solo stories, Dick Ayers had been inking Jack Kirby's pencils. So it's a bit of a surprise to see that Kirby is MIA this issue, and the story is pencilled and inked by Dick instead, who would go on to be the main Torch artist for quite a while. Still, it begs the question: What's going on? Between this issue, and last week's Ant-Man story, where has Kirby gone? The next new comic fully illustrated by Kirby wouldn't premiere until the Spring, so it's not that. Was he picking up more of the shorter one-shot tales, still needed for anthology mags like Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense? Was he struggling with deadlines (not something you hear about Jack Kirby, ever) and so was given a couple of issues off so as to stockpile more pages for the coming months in order to get ahead? Was his productivity hampered by illness or some other real-world concern? We can't say. However, despite Dick Ayers having been primarily an inker around this time, he acquits himself admirably in taking over from Jack; even though we can tell it's no longer Kirby on the strip, there isn't the sense of jarring disconnect found in last week's Tales to Astonish.

  • Last issue, we talked about the growing presence of the Fantastic Four in what is supposed to be Johnny's solo comic, and that trend continues here. When Carl Zante, The Acrobat, tracks down the Torch, he convinces Johnny that he's being used and exploited by Reed Richards, and under-appreciated by the team as a whole. Johnny falls for it, quits the Four, and forms a partnership with Zante called "The Torrid Twosome" (seriously, how did a name like that get approved?), even going so far as to sew new costumes for himself and Zante, bearing bold "2" logos on the sleeves. It's no surprise to us when Zante tricks the gullible Torch into breaking into a bank and then turns on him in order to snatch the loot; fortunately, the rest of the FF have been keeping tabs on Johnny after his petulant outburst, and team up with him to stop the villain. Johnny, of course, claims that he was wise to Zante's plans from the get-go and was just stringing him along; I don't know if the FF believe him, but it sure sounds flimsy to us.

  • In Johnny's first issue, we're told that no one in his hometown of Glenville knows that he's the Human Torch, despite everyone being aware that his sister Sue is the Invisible Girl. This is also at odds with the fame we've seen the FF lauded with as a group, even going so far as to fete the four at an extravagant honorary dinner in Washington, D.C.! Clearly, something doesn't jibe, and the readers cried out - for in the letters page to Fantastic Four #10, Stan indicates that they had received numerous letters about the inconsistency, and that the issue was being addressed. And boy, is it rich! When Carl Zante shows up, he explains that "everybody knows that Johnny Storm and the fabulous fire-boy are one and the same person." Sue confirms that his dual role is in fact known to everyone in Glenville, but that "No one ever mentioned it because you yourself never spoke of it! They assumed you wanted privacy -- and they respected your desire!" That Johnny thought he could have a secret identity in the first place was ridiculous - but the idea that the entire town has simply been humoring him is one of the funniest twists Marvel has published thus far.

    The earnestness with which he believes his fiction is really kind of adorable.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

37: Tales to Astonish #41

Tales to Astonish #41
December 3, 1962

  • Oh, Heck! Don Heck, that is. After pencilling every Ant-Man story to date, this month Jack Kirby is nowhere to be found. Instead, Marvel artist Don Heck begins a run on the title that will last for the next eight issues. Heck, who had been around for a few years illustrating various monster, western, and romance tales, was the co-creator of another stalwart Marvel hero - who would premiere on the stands the week after this one. But - Heck's estimable talents aside - after reading seven issues of Ant-Man tales drawn by Kirby, it's impossible not to feel a bit let down. Instead of the power and sense of grotesque that Jack's figures would often imply, Heck's lines have an rougher, jagged look to them - which unfortunately suggests a rushed, unfinished quality of work. (And who knows? Given the artist change, and what little we know of the time, may have been entirely true.) Again, there aren't too many artists that wouldn't leave us feeling a bit let down after taking over from Jack Kirby, and that's not a slight against those artists as much as awe at what Kirby could do.

  • This is certainly the most sci-fi Ant-Man story to date. Scientists, including Hank Pym, are being kidnapped from our world into an alien dimension to serve the monstrous tyrant Kulla. The scientists are being compelled to construct "an electro-death ray" with which Kulla can then resist the native populace who have risen against him. One has to wonder why the despot was forced to snatch scientists from our world, however, as the men are kidnapped by use of first a paralyzing chemical, and then strange helmets which transport both kidnapper and victim across the dimensional veil. If Kulla had the means to invent or obtain such devices, why couldn't he similarly achieve his death weapon? What made humans necessary to invent it?

  • In Ant-Man's first superhero tale, Pym told us that ants communicate through their antennae via electronic wavelengths, and that he was able to speak with them because his cybernetic helmet was tuned to the correct frequency - as if the insect world is just one big transistor radio. Plausibility thus demands a "fuzzy reading" of this blatantly ridiculous concept, where we simply pretend Hank never attempted to explain to us how his helmet works. (Which is fine; such an approach is often necessary with these Silver Age comics.) But there's no getting around it this time, for when Ant-Man is menaced by a group of monstrous, alien insects, he finds that he can't command them as he would his ants ... because they're receiving on a different frequency. Fortunately, after a bit of a scuffle, he's able to "tune in" and thus compel them to do his bidding....

    When in doubt, hitch a ride in an alien's shoe.

Monday, March 8, 2010

36: Journey into Mystery #89

Journey into Mystery #89
December 3, 1962

  • The first thing that strikes us about this comic is the cover, and it's one that demands comment. Yes, it's bold, and yes, it's iconic. But aside from trumpeting the main character, it tells nothing about what's inside. That's par for the course today, but back then comic books were aimed at the casual reader, and thus the cover needed to have as many ways as possible in which to catch the eye, and give a plethora of reasons as to why the reader should choose this comic over any other. So, as attractive as the cover may be, it's still surprising to see just how plain it is! Even the copy merely proclaims that Thor will "battle the forces of evil" - unlike, say, every other superhero ever. Then again, the bad guy in the story is a mob leader, so a tableau of hero against villain wouldn't exactly veer into the fantastic.

  • In another surprising move, early on in the tale we get a couple of pages recapping Thor's origin, and reestablishing the setting and supporting cast of his alter ego, Dr. Don Blake.  Since the story is still only 13 pages in total, giving up that much space for catch-up material seems a questionable move. But the common wisdom of the time, usually attributed to Stan Lee, was that "every comic is somebody's first." While not literally true, the insight is that every comic book could be - so as much as you might write primarily for your regular audience, it was just as important to ensure every issue contained everything a new reader might need to make sense of it as well. On the other hand, you could take the idea too far: On page 4, the crowd exposits: "Hey, isn't that Thug Thatcher, the mob leader?" "Yeah! He tried to muscle in on the steel industry!" "They caught him selling sub-standard steel! Now he's headed for prison!" On page 12, the crowd later converses: "Thatcher the mobster?" "Yeah! He was muscling in on the steel industry -- selling sub-standard steel!" "He escaped from the cops on the way to prison!" The lesson here? Recapping every few issues: Good idea. Every few pages? Less so.

  • A couple of times in the Human Torch stories in Strange Tales, Johnny has hesitated too long to apprehend a dangerous villain in public, as he couldn't change into his superhero persona without blowing his secret identity. The same thing happens here, even more alarmingly. When a gunfight erupts between the mobsters and the police outside Don Blake's practice, he thinks, "If only Jane weren't here, I could change into Thor and go into action! But now it's impossible!" And when Nurse Jane Foster tells him that the mobsters have escaped, he replies "It doesn't matter... The police will track them down! At any rate, there's nothing you or I can do about it!" ... before resentfully thinking to himself, "But THOR would have done plenty if you hadn't been here!" From a modern reading, it's hard not to judge these heroes' priorities as woefully out of whack. But the secret identity, while out of fashion in today's stories, was then an established and expected trope of the genre - in much the same way that characters calmly breaking into song is an unquestioned convention of the musical.

    Because that's all women want, right?  To look after their menfolk.

Friday, March 5, 2010

35: Strange Tales #105

Strange Tales #105
November 8, 1962

  • As you can see from the cover - the Wizard's back! And he's out for revenge. Actually, his motive is about as absent as it was before. The first time he faced off against the Torch because he couldn't accept that there was anyone better at something than he was. (And somehow he singled out Johnny?) So, having been defeated, he's back to try to prove it again. Though it is notable that the Torch's fifth adventure already features the villain from his second. Was this Lee's attempt to quickly build up a nemesis for the kid? Or were they already starting to run out of ideas?

  • As further evidence, the Invisible Girl appears in a much larger role than the brief deus ex machina she provided the first time they defeated the Wizard. Reed and Ben make a short appearance too, making this the first time the entire foursome appeared in Johnny's Strange Tales solo stories - and the Fantastic Four are also mentioned on the cover, for the first time since his first story. Taken altogether, it's hard to avoid wondering if the Torch wasn't catching on all by himself. At least half the stories from this point on would be team-up tales (with some or all of the FF, or others), or feature big guest-stars. Perhaps Lee and co. began to suspect that the Torch just wasn't meaty enough a character to hold a book all his own?

  • Last time, I noted how ridiculously powerful they were letting the Torch's flame become; creating a flaming decoy is one thing, but having that duplicate chase the villain across the country is something else. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that being addressed just one issue later! Trying to give his sister the slip, Johnny creates another fire double before heading off after the bad guy; this ruse is quickly discovered, however, when Sue comes in and finds the decoy just standing there - not answering her questions and remaining completely immobile. And the jig is up!  I was briefly impressed: Was this Marvel's way of reining in the Torch's power set to plausible levels once again? Sadly, no, as Johnny disposes of a bomb in the climax by whipping up a catapult of flame, which - despite the lack of any physical parts - is able to hurl the bomb far away into the air.

    Johnny as impetuous youth; Sue as nagging mother.
    Not the subtlest of characterizations.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

34: Tales to Astonish #40

Tales to Astonish #40
November 8, 1962

  • Admit it: As titles go, "The Day the Ant-Man Failed!" is dramatic enough, and surprising enough, that you're instantly intrigued. Unfortunately, this is an instance where the length of the story is somewhat at odds with the intent. The conceit comes about when Pym feigns a sudden attack of appendicitis (!), and is unable to protect the armored truck he's supposed to be watching, in a bid to lure the villain of the story to attack. The problem is that in an 11-page story - requiring the typical amounts of setup, development, twists, action, and resolution - Ant-Man's "failure" only lasts for about a page, before he reveals it as the trick it was.

  • The other thing the story potentially has going for it is the identity of the mystery villain. (And, all else aside - isn't that a fantastic visual? Imagine that mask looming over you, giant-sized. Creepy!) But the shortness of the tale, and the law of economy of characters, makes the question rather obvious. Also helpful: If you've read any other Larry Lieber comic ever.

  • This time we get both inventive use of the shrunken-down setting AND Goofy Silver Age Writing. For instance, after bunking off the job sick, Ant-Man loads himself into a catapult rigged out of a rubber band and some wooden boards, which shoots him to a nearby rooftop - holding his "tiny model plane, complete with gas engine"! (Just imagine the sight of tiny Ant-Man in his tiny plane, flying through the air. Pretty cute!) And after confronting the villain in the truck, he jumps into the ignition, wriggling out of the way when the villain tries to crush him by inserting the key, and then makes his way down towards the engine block. No sooner has he taken a breather, however, than the villain attacks again by - honking the horn! A lot. But the kicker comes when he's standing on the windshield, and his ants manage to turn the dashboard control ... thus propelling him through the air, to take down the villain once and for all. Sometimes, you've just got to shake your head and go with it....

    Actually, for a Larry Lieber script, that's fairly witty!

Monday, March 1, 2010

33: Fantastic Four #11

Fantastic Four #11
November 1, 1962

  • This is a very odd comic. For one thing, this is the first time we see the Fantastic Four break the fourth wall! In FF #5, we saw the Torch reading a Hulk comic. And last issue, the team confirmed that they're aware of the comic book that's published about their adventures. But there's a fine line between that, and speaking directly to the audience, as when Mr. Fantastic says "You're right, Ben! Remember how we were when we were younger?" and Sue prompts him, "Perhaps our fans would like to hear about this, Reed." All of them gazing directly out of the panel.

    Pranked yet again by the Yancy Street Gang.

  • That said, the bits we learn about Reed & Ben's younger days is extremely intriguing, despite taking only a few panels. We hear that they met as college roommates: two young men from incredibly different backgrounds who quickly became inseparable. Shortly after graduating, they served in World War II, where Ben learned the piloting skills that led him to fly the rocket that would give the four their powers. Marvel didn't have any war comics currently on the stands (just westerns, romance comics, and monster mags, in addition to their new line of superheroes) but this would change in just a few months. Did the few panels here on Reed & Ben's war days whet Stan's appetite to try one in full?

    Despite the mention of Reed's wealthy background - finally explaining how he was able to finance
    his own rocket ship - we wouldn't see the father in question until 1984.

  • If we're really paying close attention to all the details we're given in this issue, the ages and years are a bit dodgy. In the letters page, we're told that Ben and Reed are in their late 30s, and the math pretty much adds up: If we're assuming that the story takes place in the "present" of 1962, then the end of World War II (1945) was 17 years beforehand. By taking the numbers at their maximum range - that Reed and Ben are 39, and they only served in the last year of the war - we would find that they joined up at the age of 22, which also fits what we're told about the two men enlisting right after receiving their diplomas. The thing that doesn't quite gel? Stan states in that same letters page that Sue is "in her twenties", and yet when Reed talks about his love for Sue, he tells her, "It's always been you, since we were kids together living next door to each other!" Which, even if we're being extra generous and allowing that Sue is 29, still describes a brainy 16-year-old guy in love with his 6-year old neighbor. All together now: Ew.

    To be fair, Stan & Jack hadn't really given Sue much to do up till now.
    Hopefully, from here on out that will start to change.

  • For the first time, the Fantastic Four comic explicitly features two separate stories. (Their first issue featured their origin story and the Mole Man adventure, but the one was nested inside the other as a flashback.) In the tale entitled "A Visit with the Fantastic Four" we find the team discussing their backgrounds (as above), playing with the kids on the street who idolize and emulate the FF, and answering fan mail delivered by their mailman Willie Lumpkin - himself lifted from a short-lived syndicated comic strip by Stan Lee and Dan DeCarlo. The other story featured the Impossible Man from the planet Poppup (seriously), an overexcited alien whose powers include changing his shape at the speed of thought, and irritating everyone around with his antics. Apparently he was very successful at this, and the readers HATED him; the character wouldn't be seen again for another 14 years.

    The one time where "ignore a problem till it goes away" actually works!